6/17/2014 1:10 A.M. ET
From Gwynn, 'a legend,' Pujols mastered hitting
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- Albert Pujols used to have this videotape of Tony Gwynn conducting a hitting clinic in the late 1990s. The Angels' first baseman was at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City then, still striving to be the hitter who would establish himself as one of the greatest ever, and Gwynn was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. So Pujols popped that tape in frequently, hoping to learn as much as he could from a master at his craft.
"I took a lot of notes off that," Pujols said Monday, the day Gwynn lost his multiyear battle to salivary gland cancer at the age of 54.
"It's a sad day," Pujols added. "Not just for myself, because I got to know him over the years, but for baseball. We lost a great man at a young age."
Pujols' first year with the Cardinals -- 2001 -- was Gwynn's last with the Padres, and Pujols got to be his National League teammate when Gywnn was an honorary addition to the All-Star Game at Safeco Field in Seattle that summer. Nearly two months later, when the Padres and Cardinals met for their first regular-season meeting, Pujols finally struck up the nerve to tell Gwynn about those videotapes.
But he never really talked to him about hitting.
"I wasn't that comfortable my first year in the league," Pujols said. "But he was always open to help all the young players."
Gwynn went down as one of the greatest hitters of all time, a guy who compiled 3,141 hits, sported a lifetime batting average of .338, won eight National League batting titles and never struck out more than 40 times in one season.
"A legend," Pujols said. "Just an unbelievable hitter. But I think for me, he was a better person, with everything that he accomplished in the game vs. off the field. What he's done, and what he did through his career in San Diego, it speaks for itself."
Aybar held out of lineup, but sore hip has healed
CLEVELAND -- Erick Aybar was out of the lineup for Monday's series opener against the Indians, one day after exiting Sunday's contest early due to soreness in his left hip, but the shortstop pinch-hit late in the Angels' 4-3 loss and is expected to start again on Tuesday.
Aybar said pregame that his hip has fully healed, then took part in batting practice, hit a pinch-hit single in the top of the eighth and played the bottom half on defense.
Aybar, batting .292/.329/.438 while displaying Gold Glove-caliber defense, initially hurt himself while diving for an Andrelton Simmons grounder in Atlanta on Saturday and exited in Sunday's third inning.
"But I'm good now," Aybar said pregame. "I'm good."
Back in Cleveland, Smith seeking old form
CLEVELAND -- Angels reliever Joe Smith returned to Cleveland on Monday, still in search of the sidearm right-hander who used to dominate here.
Smith sports a solid 3.18 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP in his first 29 games, but when asked to assess his season thus far, the 30-year-old said: "I don't think I've been very good." The reason: Smith has allowed all six of his inherited runners to score, and he's already had two outings in which he's allowed three or more runs.
The latter never happened last year, and has only taken place four times from 2011-12.
"I've been very inconsistent, which probably makes me more frustrated than anything because my whole career I feel like that's something I've been very good at is being consistent," said Smith, who had a 2.42 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP from 2011-13.
"I'm not a guy to let big innings happen like that, so that part has been very frustrating for me. It's just been kind of a battle all year. It started in Spring Training, for whatever reason."
Smith is in the first of a three-year, $15 million contract, the kind of deal that's rare for a non-closing reliever, but doesn't believe that has anything to do with what he considers a shaky start.
"I don't feel like I've put more pressure on myself because of the contract," Smith said. "It's just at the beginning of the year I had trouble stepping off, slowing the game down, like I've been so good about. And I think that's why those big innings happen. That's why they did not happen before, because I was able to control that and control the pace of the game. For whatever reason, I just wasn't doing it.
"I just continue to remind myself of that, because I got away from that earlier in the year. When the game speeds up on you, you're not going to be able to make your pitches, you're not going to be good to the team."
De La Rosa practicing patience in return to Angels
CLEVELAND -- Dane De La Rosa is back in the Majors, but is he close to being the guy from last year?
"Which guy?" the Angels' veteran reliever asked.
The guy who was good enough to appear in a team-leading 75 games, posting a 2.86 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP while throwing his fastball in the mid-90s.
"I'll just say I feel good," De La Rosa said. "I'm not going to go off last year. I feel good now. Hopefully by just getting innings and throwing more, I'll start getting a little stronger."
De La Rosa was recalled from Triple-A Salt Lake on Sunday, made his second appearance of the season in the eighth inning -- also his first appearance since his velocity was way down on April 12 -- and gave up a run on two hits and a walk.
The 31-year-old right-hander, who strained a forearm in Spring Training and dealt with irritation in his right s/c joint for half of April and all of May, was at about 94 mph with his fastball last year, then watched it gradually climb to about 96. His fastball was only 88 during his regular-season debut in April, and it was 90 mph on Sunday.
But De La Rosa isn't worried about his velocity at this point, saying he's "three months behind" due to the time he's missed with a couple of ailments.
"I feel good," said De La Rosa, who was called up when shoulder inflammation sent fellow reliever Fernando Salas to the disabled list. "There's still some fine-tuning I still have to do, but I'm throwing strikes and I'm feeling much better."
• Angels reliever Fernando Salas (right shoulder inflammation) was examined by team doctors on Monday but did not require an MRI. Manager Mike Scioscia said "there are no tests that are pending, so it's just something that's going to calm down."
• Starter Tyler Skaggs (right hamstring strain) is slated to throw a simulated game at Progressive Field on Tuesday and looks on track to be activated from the disabled list on Saturday, the first day he's eligible.
• The Angels face four consecutive right-handed starters in Cleveland, but the right-handed-hitting C.J. Cron could get some starts in favor of the left-handed-hitting Raul Ibanez. "We'll see how things roll," Scioscia said. "We've got to get Raul and C.J. going. These guys were sitting for a while in Atlanta."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.